Frida Kahlo: The unapologetic artist

You probably know the face. But there's so much more to Frida Kahlo, perhaps the most-famous female artist in art history, than meets the eye. "I think Frida Kahlo is definitely one of those one-name artists," said Lisa Small, co-curator of a new Kahlo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. "People say that – Frida – and you know who you're talking about."

Blurring the line between artist and art, the exhibit includes more than 300 pieces, including self-portraits, photographs, and personal items that suggest how Kahlo carefully crafted her image, like her trademark unibrow.

"Everybody loves to fixate on the unibrow," said Small. "The fact that she had an eyebrow pencil, you know, she was paying attention to them in some way; she might've even been making them more pronounced or bolder!"

Kahlo was born in Mexico City in 1907. She developed an eye for art as a child, aided by her father, a well-known photographer. "She was his assistant," said Small. "But most importantly, she learned how to pose for photos. That really intense gaze that you see coming out of all of these pictures that her father took of her is the same gaze that you see later, coming out of her own self-portraits."

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The artist Frida Kahlo, in a c. 1926 photograph, and in a self-portrait, from the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, "Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving." CBS News

She taught herself to paint at 18, as she recovered from a horrific bus accident that shattered her pelvis and spine. "She's laying in bed, sometimes painting paintings above her on a special easel," said Small.

"But I don't think many people think of her as a disabled artist," said correspondent Faith Salie.

"Yeah, exactly. She lived her life as a disabled person, and it became part of her identity and her creative process."

So much so that an entire room in the exhibit displays how she lived her life in pain, featuring the braces and plaster corsets she had to wear. The corsets themselves are works of art: "She painted them while she was wearing them," said Small. "The hammer and sickle of Communism is right over where her heart would be.

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A plaster corset worn (and decorated) by Frida Kahlo. CBS News

"And then, very poignantly, she's painted a curled-up fetus over her womb, which leads to these complicated and fascinating questions about Kahlo and never having children."

Kahlo also survived childhood polio, which left one leg shorter than the other. When she lost that leg to gangrene, her prosthetic became a work of art. The prosthetic leg featured a boot, onto which she sewed little bells, "which I think is so fascinating," said Small. "Because here is the leg that is no longer there, and every time that [prosthetic] leg moves, you're gonna hear it!"

To Kahlo the artist, no subject was off-limits, including her tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera, the 20th century muralist. She paints the couple at their best, and at their worst. After she caught Rivera having an affair (with her sister, no less), she created the piece "Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair."

Small said, "Rivera loved her long hair. And so, her cutting it off is something of a power move. And the fact that she's holding the scissors with which she cut all of those hairs off, right at crotch level, also, I think, could be interpreted in a slightly symbolic way."

Kahlo spent four years in the U.S. following Rivera as he painted his massive murals. At the time, the artistic talent of "Mrs. Rivera" artistic talent was mostly ignored, and after she died in 1954, at age 47, it would take decades for the art world to truly recognize her work.

And we remember Frida Kahlo today, says Small, because she invites us to see ourselves. "Putting herself out there, playing around with her identity and how she presents herself to the world, it presses all of the buttons today. And that's what, I think, keeps her so remarkably relevant."

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As evident in a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, there is so much more to famed painter Frida Kahlo than meets the eye. CBS News

       
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Story produced by David Rothman.

       
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